We all know that position is important in holdem poker, in fact, in all forms of poker. But it’s especially important in Texas Holdem, Omaha, Draw and other games where one’s position remains the same for the entire hand. But few players have given a lot of thought to all of the reasons position is important.
Let’s start with the obvious. Position is important because the player who has the last position, the button, gets to see the action of every other player before he acts. The further one is from the button the less his advantage. This is important because he gets this knowledge before he decides he has to act. He may therefore base his action on the actions of those in front of him.
Just a quick illustration. You have 8-8 on the button. If no one calls the big blind in front of you, then you have only two players yet to act after you on the pre-flop round: the Small Blind and the Big Blind. You can safely raise, knowing that it is a strong probability that you have the best poker hand at the table.
On the other hand, if you were under the gun, first to act after the Big Blind, then you’d have a difficult decision to make, unsure whether players after you might have a very strong hand that would either trap you with a call or blow you out with a legitimate re-raise. You’d probably have to either raise a large amount, four times the big blind or so, to truly discourage weak or drawing hands from entering. But you'd still be running the risk that any of the players yet to act had a legitimate raising hand like a Premium Pair with which they would re-raise you and force you to fold, (losing your initial bet) or call (running the risk of losing even more money to a prohibitive favorite).
And in early position with your 8-8, you’d have to be concerned that if the flop had cards higher than an 8, that your opponent might have bypassed you by pairing the board. You’d have a tough decision to make post-flop: check and fold or call if your opponent bets, believing that he was taking advantage of his stronger position and your check to knock you out of the pot even if he didn’t have a legitimate hand. Or you might bet, hoping that you’d convince your opponent that the flop hit you better than it hit him. Here, you're again running the risk that the flop really did hit him strongly and that he’d re-raise, with all of the bad consequences that might ensue.
You can see the standard reasons for playing your hand more carefully from early position, and why you can call or raise with more hands from later position.
But here’s a list of many other matters that a good player should consider about his position. These are meant to be short takes to get you to think. Spend a minute or two on each point and think of circumstances when it would be true. I’ll start with some obvious points but move on to the less obvious.
If you are in late position:
You get to see others act in front of you.
There are many fewer players who can act after you.
You have a much better chance of being the best hand if no one has entered the hand before you.
You will have better position on all of the later streets.
More players who call your bet will have to act in front of you on later streets.
If your opponents give off any tells when they look at their cards, but they are careful not to look at their cards until it is
their turn to act, you will be able to spot those tells from more
players in late position.
Many more players will have to act on their cards after the flop before you act. So making a decision based on just their reaction to the
flop (but not their betting action) is relatively less important.
If you react openly to the flop, these reactions are likely to be
more important, since your opponents won’t be able to see your actual betting action, only your physical reaction before they
decide on how to act on the flop.
There are fewer players who can smooth-call your re-raise, since most players who enter the hand will enter in front of you and will have
already called the Big Blind.
Your raise will probably have to be at least slightly larger in a loose game than in early position as more players are likely to have called the Big Blind by the time it gets to you.
You will be better able to exploit bad loose calling players who are likely to call with poor hands if you have not acted with a large raise.
Very good players will be more likely to suspect that you are bluffing when you raise in late position.
Good players are more likely to bluff into you when you are in late position, making your medium-strength hands more playable.
On the other hand, there are some advantages to being early in the action:
Your raise will be perceived by smart players as meaning you are stronger than if you made a similar raise in later position. So
observant players with mediocre hands or strong but not super-strong hands are more likely to fold to your raise when you make it from early position.
It therefore makes it easier, in a way, to bluff against tight
observant players when you are in early position, especially if you have a tight image.
Players acting after you are more likely to fold if you raise a small amount; they'll be more afraid of being re-raised by players yet to act after them if they just call you.
You will be able to watch the reaction to your betting action of many players, helping you assess their play.
You can check-raise from early position must more readily than from later position.
You are much less likely to be check-raised in early position.
It is more likely that if you are raised that your opponent has a legitimate hand.
Slowplays and traps are less likely to work on you when you are in early position.
If you have already called the big blind, players acting after you are more likely to play their strong hands strongly, believing that you
have a decent hand if you called in early position. They're more likely to want to shove you out of the hand by raising. Conversely,
they are less likely to slowplay you if you are in early position than in late position.
You are better able to trap aggressive opponents with slowplays when you are in early position, since there is a greater chance that someone
will act after you call, since more players remain in the hand who have not acted.
Similarly, you retain your greater ability to check-raise or slowplay on every subsequent round of betting.
When you are in early position and don’t have a hand you can safely turn your attention away from the game and back to some other task or amusement. This is useful in long tournaments when you need to give your brain a break from time to time (or when there’s a really big football game on).
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 42 years, since learning the game literally at his grandfather's knee. He's been playing seriously (and winning) in casinos, poker rooms, living rooms and kitchens all over the world, for the past 12 years. He started playing seriously in 1993 at the poker room in Foxwoods Resort Casino and he's been winning just about ever since. He's won No Limit Hold‘Em and 7-Card Stud tournaments in Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Nevada.
He is the author of Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and articles in Card Player Magazine, Poker Player Magazine, Live Action Poker Magazine, Southwestern Poker Magazine, 5thStreet Magazine, and numerous online sites. He is under agreement for his next book, Winning Low Limit/No Limit Hold‘Em, due to be published by Kensington in early 2006.
He is by profession a union organizer and negotiator, representing broadcasters, health care workers and now teachers. He has two daughters, both of whom play poker.